OPE-L Interview with Marx

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Thu Oct 30 2003 - 00:46:34 EST

probably most have already read this
Karl Marx

October 2003

Marx will not take the blame for communism and the gulag. But he
enjoys his continuing influence in the academy

Donald Sassoon: Well, Dr Marx, you are all washed up, aren't you?
Fifteen years ago your theories ruled half the world. Now what's
left? Cuba? North Korea?

Karl Marx: My "theories"-as you put it-never "ruled." I had followers
I neither chose nor sought, and for whom I have no more
responsibility than Jesus had for Torquemada or Muhammad for Osama
bin Laden. Self-appointed followers are the price of success. Most of
my contemporaries would love to be as washed up as you think I am. I
wrote that the point was not to explain the world, but to change it.
And how many eminent Victorians have done so?

DS: How about John Stuart Mill?

KM He was a well-meaning plagiarist and somewhat touching in his
exertion to reconcile the irreconcilable, and he is still read by
second-rate minds at Oxford or Yale; but has anyone heard of him in
Peoria, Illinois, not to speak of Pyongyang? You recall William
Jevons, founder of the theory of marginal utility. He was big in my
day. But when did you last meet a Jevonsian? And Comte, the father of
sociology (a ridiculous discipline, if ever there was one), is he in
print? And, please, don't ask me about Herbert Spencer, whose forlorn
tomb lies in the shadow of my monument at Highgate cemetery. No doubt
this setting of Marx opposite Spencer was a gravedigger's idea of a

DS Are there no great bourgeois thinkers?

KM Of course there are. And I punctiliously paid my respects to them.
But today few of my enemies bother reading Adam Smith or David
Ricardo. And great scholars like Tschernyschewsky are now forgotten.

DS What about Jeremy Bentham?

KM What a provocation! Bentham, that insipid, pedantic,
leather-tongued oracle of the ordinary bourgeois intelligence. A
purely English phenomenon who could have been manufactured only in
England. Never has the most homespun commonplace ever strutted about
in so self-satisfied a way.

DS How about more recent thinkers?

KM The fashion-following apologists of the propertied classes, now
and again, try to find an adequate rival for me. They just can't bear
the thought of lacking a recognised genius. So they resurrect Hayek
one summer and, by the next spring, they are all wearing Popper (now
that's someone with only one idea in his head and, boy, did he flog
it to death and irrefutably so!). The very lazy ones go for Isaiah
Berlin-so easy to comprehend, so stupendously unoriginal, so
devastatingly tautological. Of my contemporaries only Darwin made the
big time. And I understood it at once. Friedrich convinced me to
dedicate Das Kapital to him, but Darwin, coward to the last, turned
me down. On reflection, he was probably right. Had he accepted,
natural selection would have been regarded as yet another Marxist

DS OK. No one underestimates your renown. But you must agree: Marxism
is not what it used to be...

KM In reality my work has never been as important as it is now. Over
the last 40 years or so it has conquered the academy in the most
advanced countries in the world. Historians, economists, social
scientists, and even, to my surprise, some literary critics have all
turned to the materialist conception. The most exciting history
currently produced in the US and Europe is the most "Marxistic" ever.
Just go to the annual convention of the American Social Science
History Association, which I attend regularly as a ghost. There they
earnestly examine the interconnection between institutional and
political structures and the world of production. They all talk about
classes, structures, economic determination, power relations,
oppressed and oppressors. And they all pretend to have read me-a sure
sign of success. Even diplomatic historians-or at least the best of
them (a small bunch admittedly)-now look at the economic basis of
great powers. Of course much of this work is crude economic
determinism. But you can go a long way with "vulgar" Marxism. Look at
the success of simplistic theories propounding the view that empires
collapse because they spend too much. Well, at least the economy is
back in. Social history, the history of ordinary men and women, has
supplanted the idiotic fixation with great men. Of course, many
things have moved on. Thank God for that. I was never one for
standing still. Das Kapital was unfinished, and not just because I
died too soon but because, in a very real sense, it could not be
finished. Capitalism moves on and the analysis always trails behind.

DS: So what have you achieved? What's left?

KM I devoted my life to the study of capitalism. I tried to lay bare
its laws of motion. I tried to get to the kernel of its fundamental...

DS: You were obsessed with the economy...

KM And how right I was. You are all obsessed with the economy and,
for the foreseeable future, you will remain so. I don't need to
explain this to readers of the Financial Times, the Wall Street
Journal and the Economist. Nor to politicians who promise heaven on
earth and then say "you can't buck the markets," and that
globalisation (the current polite name for world capitalism) is
unstoppable. Who is obsessed? Do you remember that petty Arkansas
politician who became US president and played around with the intern?
What's his name?

DS: Clinton.

KM Yes. "It's the economy, stupid!" Well, my dear boy, I said it first.

DS: At some length...

KM True, Das Kapital is no soundbite. Yet when required I produced my
share of good quotes. "Workers of the world unite; you have nothing
to lose but your chains" is better than anything the overpaid
underbrained Downing Street spinners can come up with.

DS: But the idea that today's workers have nothing to lose is absurd.

KM You are right. Your workers-the workers of Europe and North
America-now have plenty to lose. In my day, of course, they were
still treated abominably. Even 20 years after the Manifesto, although
England was richer than other countries, matters had not improved all
that much. The search for profits made more and more victims-and not
just among the workers. In 1866 I noted the sensational newspaper
stories about railway crashes. In those days, when Britain ruled the
waves, the driver of a locomotive engine would work for 30 hours on
the trot with disastrous consequences. Railway catastrophes were then
called "acts of God." I called them acts of capitalism. (Now, of
course, things are completely different, aren't they?) Or take the
report in the London papers of June 1863 under the heading, "Death
from simple overwork." It dealt with the death of Mary Anne Walkley,
a 20-year-old milliner, employed in a respectable establishment. This
girl worked, on average, over 16 hours without a break. As it was the
"season" it was necessary to conjure up quickly the gorgeous dresses
for the noble ladies invited to a ball in honour of the Princess of
Wales. Walkley had worked without stop for over 26 hours, with 30
other girls in one small room. You'll find all of this in Kapital. If
you cared to read it, dear boy, you will realise that it is not just
a dry economic treatise. It drips with outrage and indignation.

DS: But such things were exceptions even then-which is why they were
reported. They no longer happen. Train drivers now have nice homes,
go on foreign holidays...

KM Yes, yes, and the main reason is that my side, my party, the
socialists, the trade unionists, the reformers whom I supported and
encouraged, set a limit to capitalist exploitation. Or, in the awful
jargon used by the complacent scribblers of the bourgeois press, they
erected labour market rigidities. But elsewhere, in the former
colonies, where there is no democracy, no trade unions, no socialist
parties, the degradation of those who have nothing to sell but their
labour power more than matches the sweatshops of my days. And even in
the west, wherever the workers are not organised, things are just a
little better. Why don't august organs such as Prospect lay bare the
realities of your world instead of gazing nervously at the navel of
the bourgeoisie and keeping its readership snug and sheltered?
Everything I denounced still goes on. In the capitalist landmark
itself, the US of A, deskilling and lower wages occur across a broad
spectrum of industries-from the most modern to the most backward. New
sweatshops and homework have broken the backs of the trade unions in
high technology areas such as California. So when I hear
sanctimonious claptrap about human rights and freedom from the
representatives of the bourgeois order, the Bushes and Blairs and
tutti quanti, I shake my venerable head disconsolately. Do these
people ever go to war to impose limits to the exploitation of labour?
Do they ever fight for the freedom of workers to join unions? All
they ever do is replace "unfriendly" governments with "friendly"
ones-governments friendly to capital accumulation.

DS: But in the west, workers used the freedoms you mention to improve
their lot under capitalist national states, not to abolish them.
Admit it: the working class has been a disappointment to you.

KM It is true that the national state which had appeared as the
workers chief oppressor turned out, in the following 100 years, to be
their main source of loyalty. The middle class, especially the
intellectuals, proved to be far more internationalist than the
proletariat. We had a premonition about this reformism. I recall the
first elections held under the 1867 Reform Act. Manchester
(Manchester!) had returned three Tories to two Liberals. Engels was
upset. He wrote that "the proletariat has discredited itself

DS: How do you explain it?

KM The socialist struggle presents an unavoidable contradiction. We
need to fight for reforms but each gain saps the revolutionary will
of the workers. Strong workers extract real improvements. Weak ones
starve. You don't seriously think that the bourgeoisie would have
conceded the eight-hour day, paid holidays, old age pensions, a free
health service, education for all, and national insurance in a
paroxysm of philanthropy? To get these things it was necessary to
strike not at the heart of the capitalists but at their profit. You
don't imagine that capital goes to Thailand, Taiwan, Bangladesh or
Brazil hoping to find well-organised workers, conscious of their
rights and able to secure high wages? The conditions of life achieved
by workers in the west cannot be writ large over the entire planet.
Capitalism can be global-as I explained a long time ago when capital
was but a gleam in a vast worldwide bog dominated by petty commodity
production and peasants. But can everything else go global? Swedish
social democracy? Or the lifestyle reached by many American workers?
Even the Catholics know that they can't all be popes. Will one day
the 1.3bn Chinese and the 1bn Indians go to work driving their own
cars powered by cheap petrol? And return home to air-conditioned
rooms? And in the morning spray their armpits (4.6bn of them!) with
deodorant without hearing the deafening sound of the ozone layer
cracking? Are there no limits to growth?

DS: So now you too resort to Malthus and say that the future may be
catastrophic. May I remind you, Dr Marx, that you were a Victorian
optimist, a child of the Enlightenment. In the Manifesto you...

KM The Manifesto, the ScheiÓŹmanifesto! Let me put it into
perspective. I wrote the damn thing in February 1848, when I was
under 30. Most of my scientific work was still to come. The
Manifesto, commissioned by an insignificant leftist group, was
written against a tight deadline. As it hit the bookshops (well,
that's a figure of speech, I don't think it sold more than 1,000
copies in 1848) Europe was swept by a wave of revolution: France,
Germany, Hungary, Poland, Italy. Everywhere the masses were
clamouring for a constitution, for freedom, for democracy. The
Manifesto reflected the optimism of those heady days. We thought that
everything was possible. Imagination had seized power.

DS: And then?

KM Then the counter-revolution set in. Some gains were achieved here
and there, but on the whole, my side lost. In France, the home of our
most cherished hopes, a little upstart with a grand name, Louis
Napoleon, took over. He was the first elected dictator in modern
history. I wrote an instant book (I use your terminology, just to
show that my century had invented most of what yours claims for
itself). Contrary to all the neoliberal philistines who think I'm an
economic determinist-coming from the dummkopfs who go round shouting
that markets are the basis of freedom, what chutzpah!-I explained
that when the bourgeoisie is threatened, it will give up power to
anyone it can pick up from the gutter. Who cares about civil rights
and elections and press freedom when the rule of capital is in
danger? The bourgeoisie, realising that its political rule was
incompatible with its own survival, destroyed its own regime,
vilified its own parliament and invited Napoleon to rule. It
abdicated its powers to the scumbag leader of a party of decayed
rouÚs, swindlers, mountebanks, gamblers, untenured academics, and
beggars. With these dregs the second empire was created out of a
victory in a popular referendum. All this I analysed. All this I
deconstructed (yes, I keep up with modern charlatans). The result:
the first theory of fascism. So don't tell me I have ever been under
any illusion about the people. I know how to look at the harshest
reality with equanimity. I realised we had lost, as your socialist
friends have now. And I plucked up my courage and went to work. I
spent my days in the British Museum reading room, solitary and proud,
my soul devoured with rage, my arse festered with carbuncles, but my
mind doing its duty, the duty of intellectuals: face reality.

DS: No one doubts your integrity. It is your analysis which is
questionable. If democratic governments can be a threat to the
bourgeoisie, then it is surely wrong to say, as you wrote in the
Manifesto, that the "executive of the modern state is but a committee
for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie."

KM Well, was I that much off the mark? Is it not the case that all
governments are constrained by capitalism's own structures? That,
when all is said and done, they are forced to do all they can to
ensure its profitability, train its workforce, repair its failures,
and mop up the debris it excretes on the way? And they all do it, all
slaves to the imperatives of capitalism: the left and the right and
the middle and the socialists and fascists and liberals and greens.
Once in power they must keep the show on the road. If the show runs
well, then they tax and spend and redistribute this and that and help
the poor and the sick just as the Victorians did. When the profits
roll in they bask in morality and ethics. When profits decline and
the economy enters into one of the economic cycles I had predicted,
philanthropy is discarded like an ageing mistress. Then your good
bourgeois discovers that you cannot tax and spend, that the
unemployed are scroungers, that public medicine costs too much, that
single mothers are feckless. The conscience of the bourgeoisie is
closely wired to the vicissitudes of the stock exchange.

DS: And what about the intellectuals?

KM Second-rate theorists; in reality the paid lackeys of the rich.
The thing about bourgeois scribblers is that they always theorise
after the event. They pick up intellectual garbage, polish it up,
call it theory and serve it up as science. Rebellion against
capitalist modernity takes the form of religious fanaticism and they
call it "a clash of civilisations." Communism falls and the "end of
history" is proclaimed-Oh poor Hegel, what would he say? The first
time a great thinker, the second time a Fukuyama farce?

DS: Calm down. Let's move on. I've got to ask you this: the Soviet
Union, the gulag, communist terror.

KM I thought you would. I must admit that I am as vain as the next
person and all this personality cult and Marx-worship did get to me.
It did tickle me to see my face on banknotes of the old DDR and a
Marxplatz in every Prussian city. Of course, thanks to Engels's
marketing skills and the efforts of Bernstein and of that tedious
man, Kautsky, I became the grand guru of the socialist movement soon
after my demise. Consequently Russian westernisers had to take me as
seriously as electricity. So I was not surprised when Lenin decided
to turn me into the Bible. Lenin was a clever politician with good
instincts. But he was also a fundamentalist determined to find in my
works the justification for whatever it was he wanted to do. He made
"Marxism" up as he went along. This detestable habit, typical of
religions since time immemorial, spread everywhere. I began to have
the feeling that even my shopping lists were being drafted into the
service of this or that faction of the movement. Take the notion of
the "dictatorship of the proletariat." This was a formula I had
devised to suggest, following its ancient Roman usage, an exceptional
government in a time of crisis. I must have used this expression no
more than ten times in my life. I can't tell you my surprise when
this resurfaced as a central idea of Marxism, used to justify
one-party rule. What can I say? And I was rather surprised when the
first so-called socialist revolution occurred in such a deeply
backward country run by Slavs-of all people. What the Bolsheviks were
doing was accomplishing the bourgeois revolution that the Russian
bourgeoisie was too small and stupid to carry out. The communists
used the state to create a modern industrial system. If one must call
this the "dictatorship of the proletariat," well, so be it.

DS: But the purges, the crimes, the blood....

KM I did say that capital is born dripping from head to foot, from
every pore, with blood and dirt.

DS: I mean communism not capitalism.

KM The Russian revolution was not a socialist revolution waged
against a capitalist state. It was a revolution against a semi-feudal
autocracy. It was about the construction of modern industry, modern
society. Industrial revolutions always occur at great cost whether
led by communists or pukka bourgeois. Your modern political
accountants, as they scavenge through history to make the case for
the prosecution, have they totted up the deaths caused by
colonialism, and capitalism? Have they added up all the Africans who
died in slavery on their way to America? All the American Indians
massacred? All the dead of capitalist civil wars? All those killed by
the diseases caused by modern industry? All the dead of the two world
wars? Of course Stalin and co were criminals. But do you think that
Russia would have become a modern industrial power by democratic,
peaceful means? Which road to industrialisation has been victimless,
and undertaken under a benign system of civil liberties and human
rights? Japan? Korea? Taiwan? Germany? Italy? France? Britain and its
empire? What were the alternatives to Lenin and Stalin and the red
terror? Little Red Riding Hood? The alternative would have been some
Cossack-backed antisemitic dictator as cruel and paranoid as Stalin
(or Trotsky; frankly I have no preference), far more corrupt and far
less efficient.

DS: So was it all inevitable?

KM That I don't know and neither do you. But don't you dare to
reproach me with one drop of blood or one writer in jail. May I
remind you that I was a political exile because I defended freedom of
speech, that I lived all my life in shabby conditions and that I died
in 1883 when Lenin was 13 and Stalin four. I could have written a
bestselling "Black Book of Capitalism" and listed all the crimes
committed in its name. But I did not. I examined its misdeeds
dispassionately, in a balanced way as I would examine now those of
communism. Much as I like polemic I knew capitalism was better than
anything that preceded it and that it could lay the basis for the
realm of true freedom, freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom
from the state, which is what communism is. Take the piece I wrote on
the Indian revolt of 1857 in the New York Daily Tribune. English
soldiers committed abominations: raping women, roasting whole
villages. Did I use this to score some petty points? I did not. Nor
did I wax sentimental over the destruction of idyllic native
communities. These I denounced as the solid foundations of oriental
despotism and tools of superstition. I explained that British
imperialism was bringing about a social revolution and celebrated it,
but I saw no reason not to lament the devastating effects of English
industry on India.

DS: How about your early writings on alienation? The 1844 manuscripts
were popular in the 1960s. People saw their relevance to the modern

KM Nonsense. The reason I did not publish such stuff is that it was
inconsequential claptrap. It is typical that the disaffected petty
bourgeois intelligentsia would have lapped this up. I have no time
for them.

DS: So you don't think your relation with Hegel...

KM Hegel Schmegel. I must tell you a secret: I never actually read,
except in the most cursory fashion, Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit
or his S cience of Logic. Life's too short.

DS: This will be a bit of a shock in some quarters.

KM People should read the great English economists, Adam Smith and
David Ricardo. Well, not really English: one's a Scot, the other a
Sephardic Jew-clever people of good stock, who know the value of
money. Germans like Hegel transform hats into ideas. I prefer the
Brits who transform ideas into hats.

DS: What do you make of present-day socialism?

KM It has been moribund for a long time. It fulfilled its task:
civilising capitalism in its heartland. More could not be asked of
it. It is now going quietly. Communism too has collapsed, its task
fulfilled: the construction of capitalism. They understand this well
in China-where the next century will play itself out. In Russia,
where we are witnessing the transition from lumpen communism to
lumpen capitalism, it's a different matter. But how can you build
anything with the Russians? One should read their novels, listen to
their music, but as for a viable economy...

DS: How about Blair, Schr÷der, the third way?

KM Do I have to have a view about these people? To say that history
will forget them is too grandiose. They won't even register. And this
shows how low your lot has sunk. In my days we faced Bismarck,
Lincoln, Gladstone and Disraeli... real enemies.

DS: So that's it? The triumph of capitalism.

KM Quite, but let's be a bit dialectical. As this is not a system
where everyone can win, there will be resistance. For now it's just
puny sects playing at revolution. Or the "No Global" bunch , the

DS: What do you think of them?

KM A mishmash of inchoate fragments. But better than nothing. At
least they stand up to capital, but they won't change the world, let
alone explain it.

DS: And feminism?

KM I did write that great social changes are impossible without the
feminine ferment. But there is far to go. The majority of workers in
the world are now women, but the vast majority of feminists are not
workers. What many western feminists want is to share power with
western man. And why not? Who would want to be some schmuck's
hausfrau? But this makes no difference to the feminine army of labour.

DS: What about America?

KM Always liked the Yankees: no feudalism, no hallowed traditions. Of
course, a lot of cant and religion. But somehow they come out of
every capitalist crisis stronger and stronger. Wonderful system of
government. Fake democracy, fake elections, fake political system
surrounded by humbug and greedy lawyers. This allows business to get
on with its tasks, buying candidates, a bribe here, a bribe there.
The people are not taken in. Half of them don't bother to vote. For
the other half, politics is harmless fun, like watching Who Wants to
Be a Millionaire? I moved the headquarters of the first international
of workers to New York not just to control it better but also because
America was becoming the workers' country par excellence. It is
really the only working-class country in the world. Their games,
their culture, their manners, their food; everything about Americans
is working class. Of course, old Europe remains rather snobby about
them, a consolation prize for lost supremacy.

DS: Finally, what about the war against terror?

KM Well, in the end everyone chooses his enemies. It is absurd to
think that a capitalist world should not encounter some form of
resistance. The communists and socialists offered a rational, modern,
sensible opposition. They shared many of the values of their liberal
opponents: basic rights, the idea of popular democracy, the
emancipation of women, a distaste for organised religion. But once
the communists and the socialists were wiped out what do you expect?
The triumph of rational thought? Of course not. The political vacuum
was filled by fanatical fundamentalists, religious bigots, crazed
mullahs. You wipe out the communists in Iran and the Ayatollah comes
in. You do the same in Iraq, you get Saddam Hussein. The USSR falls
and Osama bin Laden arises.

DS: And you? How do you spend your time?

KM Oh! I have fun. Friedrich and I play on the internet. Did you know
that "Karl Marx" scores 367,000 Google hits? And I never miss The
Archers, that wonderful saga of the idiocy of rural life. What a hoot!

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